September 2012        

A decade of commemorations

Starting with the Titanic, we will be swamped with a decade of centenary commemorations and celebrations of events that shaped modern Ireland.
     When they were building the Titanic the first Government of Ireland Bill (commonly called the Home Rule Bill) was also being launched; but that bill became as defunct as the unfortunate ship, wrecked indeed by the arming of the Ulster Volunteers, the No Surrender Covenant, and the Curragh Mutiny by British officers, all to consolidate the unionist veto.
     In 2013 we will be remembering the Dublin Lock-out and the campaign of Connolly and Larkin to organise mainly the unskilled. Following these we will see the build-up to the 2016 events, commemorations of the War of Independence and the Civil War, and the foundation of the Free State and the Northern statelet.
     We have already passed the centenary of the founding of the Labour Party, without much public fanfare. Gilmore was conscious of his own forewarning of not wishing to be buried under protesting placards as that party flees in indecent haste from the ideas of its founders.
     The coming decade will be an academics’ and historians’ dream. The media will reflect the prevailing bourgeois consensus, shaping the future by rewriting the past. Our failed political elites will attempt to gut these historic events of any social content, lest the role of working people in shaping change might emerge as a decisive factor. Their ancestors used mass civic mobilisations to induce popular support—combined with violence when necessary—for compliance with the slaughter of the First World War and unionist hegemony against Irish democracy.
     Today they will be more subtle, and the decade of commemorations will be used to promote new alignments with the imperial powers and the snare of the EU superstate.
     So let us examine how democratic, republican and socialist opinion should respond to this decade. The ruling circles, North and South, will use them to test public perceptions for any new accommodations but will also use them to distract attention from their responsibility for imposing on working people the greatest hardships since the Hungry Thirties. In revisiting 1916, for example, the principal questions for which we we should be demanding answers include, What happened to the concept of cherishing the children of the nation equally, and the ownership of the nation’s resources?
     Now that the Titanic has been sunk again in a deluge of commercial hype, remaining as a tourist ghetto, we should ask ourselves whether we do enough to confront the historic past with today’s unresolved problems. Certainly there were legitimate comments about the hierarchy of class interests, about the ship’s design and accommodation and the eventual unfortunate deaths but little about the nature of the shipyard as a microcosm of a distorted city. The contradiction was that while the ships in the yards were built by the tremendous skills of the workers, those workers were a selected stratum of Belfast’s proletariat. Catholics, in the main, were excluded from the skilled trades by unionist selectivity, operating through the Orange Order.
     At the time of the building of the Titanic the passing of the third Government of Ireland Bill led to mass unionist opposition and an increase in violence against Catholics at work and in the segregated slums. It saw the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the formation of the armed Ulster Volunteer Force, and the chasing of Winston Churchill, then a Liberal, out of Belfast.
     Only one television presentation that this writer saw mentioned these events as relevant, quoting a unionist engineer to a Catholic lower rank: “This is a Protestant ship.”
     Because the sectarian divisions have not gone away we should use the hype about such commemorations to promote discussion and debate about present-day strategies for overcoming divisions among the working class and wider society. There is a proud history of attempts to build such unity: the resistance of the Protestant trade union activists to the pogroms in the shipyards in the early 20s, the joint struggles surrounding outdoor relief (unemployment assistance) in the 30s, the unity forged in the early civil rights movement, and the consistent fight to keep sectarianism out of work-places, including the march back to work against the loyalist lock-out in 1974.
     We should be prepared to counter the ideological offensive that the ruling elite in the North and South and in London are preparing. A softening-up process is constantly being refined, one that has its roots in undermining further Irish sovereignty and independence. It has long passed the mere revisionism of Harris and Myers and is being propelled by such events as the joint ceremonies at the Somme, the Queen of England’s visit and now the controversial handshake. It is building on such myths as that 1916 was foolhardy, that the empire would have conceded “home rule,” the Free State was a model of democracy, and that Northern Ireland was only a cold place.
     The elite are saying to us, Do not question, do not struggle, put your faith in responsible politicians (who understand reality), reject the Reds and the nonconformists.
     Our message should be that we see all the episodes in the decade of centenaries as part of an integrated process of struggle for independence, social justice, and equality: it was the Irish Revolution. That it is unfinished requires this generation to push it further and to open the way towards socialism.

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